Greek Revival is a style of architecture inspired by the symmetry, proportion, simplicity, and elegance of the ancient Greek temples of 5th century B.C. In the United States, Greek Revival reached peak popularity from 1825 to 1860, which was the start of the Civil War. It became the first dominant national style of architecture in the U.S. as it spread from the East Coast across the country to the West Coast.
History of Greek Revival Architecture
British architect James “Athenian” Stuart is said to have been the first to introduce Greek Revival to Britain. Taken by the classical beauty of the architecture he discovered on a 1751 trip to Greece, Stuart documented his discoveries and published Antiquities of Athens in 1762, producing the world’s first reference book detailing Classical Greek architecture. While Stuart died in 1788 before it became a full-blown trend in England and Europe in the 1820s and 30s, he is widely credited with helping to spread the Greek Revival style outside of its country of origin.
But it was in America that Greek Revival would fully bloom. As a new democracy, 19th-century Americans were inspired by the birthplace of democracy and by Greek culture, art, and philosophy and all of the symbolism and meaning that it held for a nation in the midst of defining itself. Americans began to reject the Federal style with its British influences and sought an American style with bona fide democratic roots. The Greek War of Independence (1821-1832) was another galvanizing force encouraging Americans to embrace the values of a country that had created democracy and was fighting for its independence from the Ottoman Empire.
And so with ancient Greece as its muse, everything ancient became new again as American developers and builders began to forge Greek Revival as a dominant national style across the country, leaving state capitol buildings, banks, New England churches, urban row houses, galleried cottages, and southern plantation houses in its wake.
One of the reasons the style was able to spread so quickly in an era when most developers and builders acted as their own architects (a luxury still reserved for the wealthy at the time) was the existence of architectural pattern books such as "The American Builder’s Companion" by Asher Benjamin, John Haviland’s "The Builder’s Assistant," and "The Beauties of Modern Architecture" by Minard Lafever that allowed developer/builders of the time to copy Greek Revival elements in great numbers.
As Greek Revival flourished and spread across the U.S., it was adapted to local tastes, building materials, and styles, resulting in American regional variations on the style such as the galleried one-story cottages and double-galleried Greek Revival townhouses of New Orleans or the brick Greek Revival buildings and landmark Colonnade Row townhouses (1832-33) on Lafayette Street in Manhattan, which are believed to have been built by architect and planner Andrew Jackson Davis, who is widely credited for introducing the Greek Revival style to New York.
Characteristics of Greek Revival Architecture
- Greek temple-style façade with bold round, square or even octagonal columns in wood or stucco
- Painted white columns to mimic the marble used in ancient Greece
- Building rendered in wood, stucco, brick or brownstone
- Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian details
- Gently sloping roofs with gable fronts
- Elaborate door surrounds
- Entablatures trim between roof and columns
- Front porch or covered portico entrances
- Simple, fairly open layouts
- Graceful proportions
- Tall parlor floor windows and doors
- Ornate plasterwork ceilings
- Plain plaster walls
- Wide plank floors
- Ornate ceiling mantels often made from light gray or more expensive black and gold marble
Whereas the neoclassical architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries was inspired by the classical architecture of Greek temples and the religious, military, and civic architecture of the Roman Empire, neoclassical architecture tends to focus broadly on the entire volume of a structure, whereas Greek Revival is defined by the use of classical elements.
Interesting Facts About Greek Revival Architecture
One of the signature elements of Greek Revival architecture is its imposing and easily identifiable painted white columns inspired by white marble used in the temples of ancient Greece such as the Parthenon. Ironically, the white marble of these ancient buildings was originally painted in primary colors, and did not resemble the white-washed columns that British architect James Stuart documented on his travels in the mid 18th century and that came to define the style to this day. In the U.S., columns are usually made from more accessible materials such as wood or stucco and painted white, sometimes with decorative painting techniques to imitate marble.
Greek Revival architecture was preceded by the neoclassical Federal Style of which The White House (built in 1792-1800) is a prime example, featuring details inspired by classical Greek Ionic architecture. Greek Revival was followed by the Italianate style, and many transitional buildings are a mash-up of classical revival that combine elements of these three styles.
James 'Athenian' Stuart. Victoria and Albert Museum.